The other day, a group of Orthodox Christian activists burst into a sculpture show in the centre of Moscow to protest against supposedly blasphemous representations of Christ among dozens of artworks from three non-conformist Soviet sculptors exhibited there. They harmed a few graphic works but no damage has been done to the sculptures.
The protest outraged a number of Russian intellectuals who as one spoke against this mediaeval ISIS-style vandalism, expressing hopes the law would not dismiss the protesters unpunished.
It is not the first time that it happens, and it will be happening more and more often in Russia. Don’t look so surprised and indignant. The rise of art vandalism in Russia is as obvious and predictable as Putin’s next presidential term.
Whenever a big idea takes hold of a collective mind, art that contradicts this idea gets destroyed. It happened when Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire; it happened in the wake of the French Revolution; it happens today in the Muslim Caliphate of the ISIS; and it takes place in Russia, dizzy from its illusions of grandeur amid bulldozed geese and incinerated peaches.
As any religion is, ultimately, just a therapeutic practice to fight the fear of death, destruction of art is its unavoidable consequence. It’s like a lease of premises which is the fixed cost of running a shop. The more people believe in your version of god, the safer you feel about your own choice of religion, the more purpose and sense you find in life and the less you fear death. Anything that contradicts your version represents doubt, and doubt equals a renewed fear of death, and people most afraid their beliefs are in danger start crushing statues and burning books. This also explains why fresh converts are often more violent than established believers, and why religious fanatics are most dangerous immediately after they’ve won a war or went legal.
It practical terms, it means that artworks should be better guarded, removed to safe heavens, and not exhibited in places with a high concentration of religious activists (not religious people!), because you never know what their god may whisper into their activist ear tomorrow.
There are and can be no religions of peace, because a peaceful religion has a zero chance to survive.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that all Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists are intolerant of artworks created by people with a different worldview. It just means there will always be a varying share of people within these (or any other) religions who believe destroying art and killing unbelievers is their duty and a path to salvation and life eternal.
It is the reality, and artists need to adapt to it, just like European couples visiting Dubai learn not to kiss in public, albeit sometimes in the hard way. Leaving a country with a lot of religious activists for a country with a few of them is also an option.
In the very distant future, when the human life expectancy climbs up to 250 years, there would be less fear and more tolerance. What’s important is that we find practical ways to protect controversial art until then.
I welcome alternative opinions, unless they are accompanied by death threats, of course.
In the meantime, here are Vadim Sidur’s sculptures that made the Christian vandals go bananas:
Does any one of them seem blasphemous to you?
Once, I seriously contemplated buying a sculpture by one of the three artists (Nikolai Silis), but didn’t go for it because of value concerns (the price seemed too high given that uncountable copies of the original version had been made by the sculptor).
This is Don Quixote. The daisy in his hand can be replaced by a live flower. In fact, you can change flowers in his hand as often as you want. It is an interactive artwork that can be an icon of curiosity and interest in life in all its forms.